What are Fungi and What is Their Role in Most Ecosystems?
Many people mistakenly believe that fungi are plants. It’s an easy mistake to make; fungi seem very plant-like in many ways. They remain in one place like plants. Their underground hyphae superficially resemble plant roots. Their cells have cell walls, though they are made of chitin instead of cellulose.
However, the important detail that sets fungi apart from plants is that fungi do not photosynthesize. Just like you and I, fungi only get their energy from breaking down other living things. They excrete digestive enzymes into their food source and absorb the broken down material. This important detail actually makes fungi more closely related to animals than they are to plants.
Wood Fungus - Source Andreas (2018)
In most ecosystems, fungi play the vital role of decomposers. They break down dead or dying material and return its nutrients to the rest of the ecosystem. While this isn’t a particularly glamorous job, it’s very important. Without fungi the world would be full of dead plants and animals just lying around; more importantly the energy and nutrients trapped in those bodies would be unavailable to the rest of the ecosystem.
Fungi are very, very good at breaking things down. Some fungi have even evolved the ability to digest plastic or iron. Beyond being incredibly cool, these abilities could eventually be used to help clean up landfills.
Humans benefit from fungi in many other ways too. Many of our antibiotics originated as compounds produced by fungi. Penicillin is a famous example of this. On a more delicious note, a type of fungi called yeast plays an important role in baking. The gas produced by yeast as it breaks down substances in the dough is what causes bread to rise. Fungi also play a role in the creation of certain cheeses, such as blue cheese.
Andreas (photographer). (2018). Mushroom Wood Fungus [photography]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/mushroom-wood-fungus-log-3698191/